Here is a rough draft of my sermon for Sunday, using the Jonah text. Please excuse all errors and I would love comments. Currently I am not happy with how it ends…I seem to ramble a little. I’ll be tightening that up in the days to come. Enjoy!
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!…
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
These are powerful words that have heard echoed throughout the 46 years since they were spoken. They spoke of the needed change in our country and society. We heard a lot of references to this speech this past week as Barack Obama became the 44th President of this nation. There is a word that we have heard over and over again this past year comes through Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech and the 2008 Presidential Election. That word is something that is inevitable to life and whether we like it or not, it always happens. That word is change.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He is right but there is another one, change. The only thing certain in this world is death, taxes, and the fact that nothing stays the same. We live in a constant state of change. Our lives change in little ways each day. Gray hairs appear on our heads or hairs fall from our heads. We break a glass or we buy a new shirt. Little things are always happening to change our lives but big things happen as well. We expect a new child or we lose our job. Our children turn 5, or 10, or 20 or 40. We retire or we move. The President of the United States sets slaves free and then the first black man is elected and sworn in as the President of that same nation. Change happens. Whether we like it or not, it is always happening to us, around us, and sometimes through us.
That is what was happening with Jonah. The book of Jonah is a story of a prophet who doesn’t like the calling he received. This book is not like other prophetic books of the Old Testament. Instead of telling us what the prophets said, like we find in Isaiah or Obadiah, we get the narrative story of the prophet himself. Children love this story and in fact it is one of my favorite books of the Bible because of its raw emotions, its fantasy and wonder, and the truths of humanity it expresses.
This is how the book of Jonah opens, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” God tells Jonah to head to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance but Jonah hates the Ninevites so much that he decides to head in the opposite direction. It is like God telling someone here in Thomasville to go to Washington DC to preach repentance to the politicians. Since that person hates politicians so much, that person heads to California.
Now if you remember back into your childhood Sunday School class you remember what happens to Jonah. Jonah is on a boat heading to Tarshish when a storm tosses the boat back and forth so hard that it is threatening to be torn apart. All the other sailors want it to stop and they cast lots to see who is the person who provoked this storm. The lots show that it is all Jonah’s fault. The other sailors pick Jonah up and toss him overboard. Then the Lord provided a giant fish (not a whale) to swallow him up where for the next three days and three nights Jonah hangs out. Jonah prays to God and then the fish spews Jonah up on dry ground.
That is where pick up the story. The scriptures tell us that for a second time the word of God came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh. Jonah goes and does what God wants and God spares Nineveh because they turn away from their sins. Is Jonah happy because of this? Is Jonah’s relationship with God changed when he sees what God does for the Ninevites? Nope, Jonah is madder than ever and pouts asking God that he might die. Jonah wanted to see fire and brimstone fall from heaven and destroy the people he did like. He ran from God’s calling because he knew God would have mercy on them and he didn’t want God to do that. Jonah ran from the change that was coming. Instead of embracing the change, Jonah fought it tooth and nail, but it happened anyway.
That is the funny thing about change, no matter how hard we fight it always happens. Both Presidential candidates ran under the notion that they were bringing change to Washington. The truth is they were because neither of them were George W. Bush. Since Bush could not be reelected change was inevitable and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it from happening.
It is like parents with their children. There are stages in a child’s life that are so precious that you wish they would stay that way forever. Right around 20 months to just after their second birthday children are so fun. They are walking, talking, and exploring. They love to play and you can see their personalities and imaginations start to grow. Then they become the little terrors that are two year olds. Change happened whether we wanted it to or not.
So how do we live in a good relationship with all this change that is happening? How do we foster our dreams of change like Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of? How do we fight to keep some change from happening or at least how do we change the outcome? What do we do when change happens and we don’t like it? Can we be mad at God when things don’t go the way we would like them to go?
I contemplated ending my sermon here, leaving you all with these open ended questions because that is where the book of Jonah leaves us. It ends with God asking Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” That is where the book end but I decided to give you a better ending today.
There is one thing that never changes, and that is the God that we worship. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit never changes and is the same at the beginning of time and will be for the rest of time. The love that God gives the Ninevites is open to all people whether we like it or not. Now things will change in our lives that we will not be happy with. God gives us permission to be angry with those situations too. We can be mad at God when our loved ones die, when jobs are lost, or when another Nineveh is spared from God’s wrath. We can be mad because that doesn’t change God’s love for us.
Change is always happening and we live in a world where we will not understand it or comprehend the reasons behind it. God only asks us to do what he asks us to do. I am Jonah. I ran from my calling for years. I thought I could escape local church ministry by going into chaplaincy or some other type of specialized ministry. I never wanted to preach weekly, teach Bible studies, or fill out Year End Reports. I’m scared to talk in front of people, I hate not to know the answers people ask, and I cannot stand paper work. There are so many things that I didn’t like but God asked me to do it anyway. I was never swallowed by a large fish but God’s calling came to me a couple of times, reminding me this is where I need to be.
Change is always happening and when that change comes from God we have two choices. We can go with it, following God’s guidance and instructions. Or we make a run for it. But like a dog on a lead, we can only go so far until we are jerked back. If today you are running from the voice of God, then let me be your big fish today and tell you to STOP RUNNING because God knows what God is doing. If you are in the midst of change in your life and you don’t understand it, you are not alone STOP RUNNING because God knows what God is doing. If you are grasping tightly to everything that you love in your life right now because you don’t want it to change or slip away, as it might feel like it, STOP because God knows what God is doing. Change happens, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, whether it works out in our favor or not, it happens. The only thing we can do is trust in God, be honest with God, and do what God asks us to do. Besides that, we need to let change happen and let God be God.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
 Excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.